Where to with our waterways

October 13, 2017

Genevieve Northey, Donations Programme Manager, The Tindall Foundation asks “what is our next generation’s freshwater story going to be?”

At the recent Freshwater Symposium held in Wellington by Local Government New Zealand, two journalists posed the question “what is your freshwater story?” The context was that all New Zealanders have had experiences during their lifetime which form their own freshwater story, a memory from childhood or yesteryear that places them in a stream, river or lake environment in the great outdoors. It is these memories that give people a benchmark as to how our freshwater story should be represented—clean, clear and most definitely swimmable. However, this narrative has changed.

Most people can draw upon these experiences within living memory but seeing media reports which state a very different story, or physically revisiting these areas can stir emotions and a raft of further questions as to what is the cause, and more importantly—what can be done to improve the situation?

The views on Aotearoa’s freshwater quality and quantity reflect a wide range of perspectives. No matter what side of the fence you are on, commodity-driven intensification of land for agriculture has certainly had an impact. Increased and more concentrated animal numbers, along with more than a ten times increase in the use of nitrogen fertiliser today compared to 1985 has increased nutrient levels in groundwater, streams and lakes causing issues for native flora and fauna (Ministry for the Environment’s Environment New Zealand Report, 2007). Increased extraction of water for irrigation has had proven effects on aquifers and river flows, especially in regions such as Canterbury. Sediment levels from land clearing, cultivation and stock damage are a major issue in many of our catchments. And our towns and cities are certainly not off the hook—urban areas with poor sewerage reticulation, overloaded storm water systems, uncontrolled industrial wastes, sediment and increased contaminant runoff further contribute to water quality degradation and ecosystem losses.

So amid this situation, what is the role that philanthropy can play? The Tindall Foundation endorses the need for an ecological “whole of system” approach which requires technical, social, cultural and economic change. To tackle a complex problem such as this, a “whole of system” landscape approach requires us to look beyond the immediate need of one particular aspect of the issue, and view the interrelated functions of the entire system to create change. It is understood that many of these are connected, with dynamic interactions having flow-on effects to other parts of the system.

Collaboration between funders brings together those able to support different aspects of a whole system’s continuum—from the grassroots organisations that get trees in the ground and provide environmental education and information to communities, through to activism and advocacy that lead movement-building.

Another challenge for philanthropy to consider is the reasonably small amount that the environmental sector receives from philanthropic giving, measured at 3.7% (Giving New Zealand report 2014). This compares to the 19.3% that the arts and recreation sector receives. This statistic increases the need for philanthropic organisations to collaborate to ensure the available resources are utilised for the greatest impact.

“Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act” and although the task is immense and complex, philanthropy finds itself in the privileged position to make a real difference to what will be the next generation’s freshwater story.


Jan Hania, Environmental Director, NEXT Foundation shares perspectives on waterways and how philanthropy can support their conservation and restoration.

The problems occurring in our waterways amount to a wicked set of issues that have been building over many decades if not centuries. These issues began with land use clearance in the 1800s and continued more recently with commodity driven intensification of land use, a large part of which can be attributed to a lack of a systems approach to the problem. NEXT suggests that if philanthropy were to consider making a system response to the problem, it will require cultivation and support of leadership in the environment sector at many levels, clarity around roles and responsibilities, a common purpose and a more joined up response.

However wicked, there are positive steps taking place, for example the move toward better standards recently presented by the Land and Water Forum and implemented by the Government. Without standards, we can’t measure and if we can’t measure, we can’t manage and set clear goals and outcomes. Although contentious, this new set of standards has stimulated much discussion (and debate), which is really positive as more people engage in the problem, more people engage with the solution. And it is people we need to engage in reaching a solution.

Tackling such an entrenched issue will take purposeful, committed and smart collaboration among many including iwi, government, local authorities, industries, communities, NGOs and philanthropy. Philanthropy and NGOs in general can play a role at many levels, with many making impact already with the likes of larger scale planting programmes such as the Million Metres Streams Project and the work of organisations like Sustainable Coastlines. Big Data is another area where philanthropy can play a role by partnering effectively to produce better outcomes through aiding collaboration. The concept of data commons (datacommons.org.nz) is growing support and NEXT is looking to pilot some work in this space. If we can connect the dots, we can build a high resolution, accessible, trusted way of linking data to the state of our waterways— for example a stream showing an increased E.coli level may be able to be linked to a specific previously unknown sewage overflow.

Another important step is how we think about, value and recognise the ‘rights’ of the waterways and its inhabitants to ensure better outcomes for the waterway itself. An excellent example of this is the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 which accords a legal personality to the Whanganui River. This way, we consider waterways as part of our life instead of just being utilised by us.

Moving the debate from how this affects me and them, to how this affects us, will require a more universal ownership of the problem, understanding of the issues and committed and meaningful collaboration on the solution.

There is an opportunity for us all to play a role in building community capacity and being part of the solution—better presentation of data, independent advice on solutions and good communications on the common purpose.


Projects led by Philanthropy New Zealand friends and members

LAWA (Land Air Water Aotearoa) is a partnership between the 16 regional and unitary councils, the Cawthron Institute, Massey University and the Ministry for the Environment who come together with a common aim to tell the story of our environment. Supported by The Tindall Foundation, this website provides data on freshwater quality and quantity (as well as coastal and air quality data) for local regions so communities can understand the current condition of their freshwater environments, and discover whether they are safe for recreational use. See lawa.org.nz

The Million Metres Streams Project was created by the Sustainable Business Network in partnership with the Department of Conservation. It launched in 2014 with the mission to assist the planting of one million metres of New Zealand waterway with native plants and trees. This is achieved by helping landowners and local volunteer groups set up and run crowdfunding campaigns. They have helped raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for dozens of projects up and down the country. Million Metres also works with local authorities and more than 500 businesses in the Sustainable Business Network. See millionmetres.org.nz

Established in 2003, Project Twin Streams is an awardwinning West Auckland environmental restoration project which works with communities to restore the streams in their local neighbourhoods. It has seen over 700,000 native trees and shrubs planted on the stream banks by thousands of people. It also runs creative engagement programmes to educate children and adults about caring for waterways. Supported by local iwi Te Kawerau a Maki and Ngati Whatua, Auckland Council, Waicare and Manaaki Whenua Landcare. See projecttwinstreams.com

Ngāi Tahu as mana whenua of our rohe (boundaries) in Te Waipounamu have a responsibility to act as kaitiaki (guardian) for our natural environment. As a result, we work across our takiwā (tribal territory) on a range of initiatives to enhance and rejuvenate our whenua (land), awa (river) and moana (ocean). Last year we spent $4.6 million on environmental initiatives and this work stream is a key pou (pillar) for our iwi. We work to ensure that future generations of Ngāi Tahu can access our beautiful environment—Mo tatou a mo ka uri a muri ake nei—for us and our children after us. ~ Kara Edwards, General Manager – Te Ao Tūroa at Te Rūnanga

Article originally published in Issue #71 Philanthropy News, August 2017